You Don’t Know (Headphone) Jack

There’s been a resurgence of the rumor that Apple is going to drop the headphone jack in the next iPhone. The significance of this change, whether there is truth to the rumor or not, has resulted in a few opinion pieces on the subject.

Nilay Patel, “Taking the headphone jack off phones is user-hostile and stupid“:

Look, I know you’re going to tell me that the traditional TRS headphone jack is a billion years old and prone to failure and that life is about progress and whatever else you need to repeat deliriously into your bed of old HTC extUSB dongles and insane magnetic Palm adapters to sleep at night. But just face facts: ditching the headphone jack on phones makes them worse, in extremely obvious ways.

John Gruber, “Headphone Jacks Are the New Floppy Drives“:

Should the analog headphone jack remain on our devices forever?If you think so, you can stop reading. If not, when? Maybe now is the wrong time, and Apple is making a mistake. I don’t know. None of us outside the company seem to know, because all that has leaked is that the new iPhone won’t have the port, with no explanation why. But I say at some point it will go away, and now seems like it might be the right time. […]“No one” asked for the iMac to remove the floppy drive or switch from ADB ports to USB (at a time when PCs weren’t shipping with USB either, which meant few — I mean really few — existing USB peripherals on the market). There was a huge outcry when the iPhone 5 dumped the proprietary-but-ubiquitous 30-pin port for the proprietary-and-all-new Lightning port. MacBook Air fans are still complaining about the new MacBook’s solitary USB-C port.

Vlad Savov, “Five reasons you’ll want Lightning headphones for your iPhone 7“:

Love it or loathe it, the trend in advanced personal tech is to become more digital and less analog. Wireless protocols and the above benefits of Lightning make the classic 3.5mm jack redundant. I can get more convenient audio if I drop the wires, or I can get better audio if I go digital via Lightning. With upgradeable firmware and new sensors being built in, headphones are changing in function just as they’re changing in connectivity. If you want to buy the headphones of the future, don’t cling on to the connector of the past. Sure, there’ll be an adaptation period where adapters will be necessary, but over time Apple’s Lightning and the more universal USB-C standard will take over from the 3.5mm connector.

Graham Spencer, back in December 2015 with “Thoughts on the Inevitable Demise of the 3.5mm Audio Jack on the iPhone“:

In essence, I think Apple should do three things. Firstly, acknowledge the trade-off Apple have made and the frustration some customers may feel. Secondly, clearly enunciate the benefits of switching away from the 3.5mm audio jack to the Lightning connector and Bluetooth audio. And thirdly, make the customer’s transition away from the 3.5mm audio jack as painless as possible. I’ll leave the first two up to Apple’s marketing team, but I do have some thoughts on the third.

Nilay makes some interesting arguments that, though I’m not convinced by any of them. The photo of the MacBook with the USB-C adapter is humorous, but that sort of usage is definitely edge case. Most people I know with the MacBook use the USB-C port for one thing: charging.

While I agree with John that Apple is no stranger to this sort of action, I don’t think the comparison to the floppy drive is a good one. The iMac was certainly a factor in the decline of the floppy disk, but its contribution is often overstated.

There were 113.5 million PCs sold worldwide in 1999. Of those, only 1.8 million were iMacs: 1.6% of the total market1. The removal of the floppy disk from the rest of the Mac family would have also contributed in later years, though this just takes Apple’s market share to around 3%.

The PC world didn’t ditch the floppy disk because of the actions of a 3% company. It was really the availability, and reduction in cost, of writeable and rewritable CDs that killed the floppy. Apple saw the benefits of USB, and perhaps the future of optical storage, and took the plunge. They were, knowingly, in the right place at the right time.

In comparison, Apple’s share of the smartphone market is almost 15% so the ramifications of ditching the headphone jack are far more wider reaching. Comparing a couple of million Mac customers to hundreds of millions of iPhone customers every year doesn’t quite fit.

Personally, I do think the headphone jack’s time is at an end, at least on the smartphone, but there’s no question that its removal is going to be hugely disruptive. Unlike the floppy, there isn’t anything on the horizon that is a quantum leap beyond the headphone jack’s current capabilities. Benefits, sure, but nothing revolutionary that would ease the discomfort of the transition.

I am one of the many people who mostly use the bundled earphones with my iPhone. If the next iPhone includes a set of Lightning-equipped earphones, I’ll simply use them. However, if Apple is going to do this, they need to be damn sure that it’s in the best interest of their users and have a transition plan that is as painless as possible. This should include discounts for manufacturers that would need to license their headphones under the MFi Program.

If Apple try and capitalize on the change by offering overpriced adapters, or require unencessarily high royalties through the sale of MFi accessories, they could severely damage their reputation as a user-focused company and the accessories ecosystem they’ve built.

  1. After the introduction of the iMac in 1998, it would take Apple 17 years to become a top five PC manufacturer again.